William Hazlitt.

Lectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. online

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coloured creation in their stead, are not very wise. Let the naturalist,
if he will, catch the glow-worm, carry it home with him in a box,
and find it next morning nothing but a little grey worm ; let the poet
or the lover of poetry visit it at evening, when beneath the scented
hawthorn and the crescent moon it has built itself a palace or
emerald light. This is also one part of nature, one appearance which
the glow-worm presents, and that not the least interesting ; so poetry
is one part of the history of the human mind, though it is neither
science nor philosophy. It cannot be concealed, however, that the
progress of knowledge and refinement has a tendency to circumscribe
the limits of the imagination, and to clip the wings of poetry. The
province of the imagination is principally visionary, the unknown
and undefined : the understanding restores things to their natural
boundaries, and strips them of their fanciful pretensions. Hence
the history of religious and poetical enthusiasm is much the same ;
and both have received a sensible shock from the progress of ex-
perimental philosophy. It is the undefined and uncommon that gives
birth and scope to the imagination ; we can only fancy what we do
not know. As in looking into the mazes of a tangled wood we fill
them with what shapes we please, with ravenous beasts, with caverns
vast, and drear enchantments, so in our ignorance of the world about
us, we make gods or devils of the first object we see, and set no
bounds to the wilful suggestions of our hopes and fears.

' And visions, as poetic eyes avow,
Hang on each leaf and cling to every bough.'

There can never be another Jacob's dream. Since that time, the
heavens have gone farther off, and grown astronomical. They have
become averse to the imagination, nor will they return to us on the
squares of the distances, or on Doctor Chalmers's Discourses.
Rembrandt's picture brings the matter nearer to us. — It is not only
the progress of mechanical knowledge, but the necessary advances of
civilization that are unfavourable to the spirit of poetry. We not
only stand in less awe of the preternatural world, but we can calculate
more surely, and look with more indifference, upon the regular routine
of this. The heroes of the fabulous ages rid the world of monsters



and giants. At present we are less exposed to the vicissitudes oi
good or evil, to the incursions of wild beasts or ' bandit fierce,' or to
the unmitigated fury of the elements. The time has been that ' our
fell of hair would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir as life were in
it.' But the police spoils all ; and we now hardly so much as dream
of a midnight murder. Macbeth is only tolerated in this country
for the sake of the music ; and in the United States of America,
where the philosophical principles of government are carried still
farther in theory and practice, we find that the Beggar's Opera is
hooted from the stage. Society, by degrees, is constructed into a
machine that carries us safely and insipidly from one end of life to
the other, in a very comfortable prose style.

' Obscurity her curtain round them drew,
And siren Sloth a dull quietus sung.'

The remarks which have been here made, would, in some measure,
lead to a solution of the question of the comparative merits of painting
and poetry. I do not mean to give any preference, but it should
seem that the argument which has been sometimes set up, that paint-
ing must affect the imagination more strongly, because it represents
the image more distinctly, is not well founded. We may assume
without much temerity, that poetry is more poetical than painting.
When artists or connoisseurs talk on stilts about the poetry of painting,
they shew that they know little about poetry, and have little love for
the art. Painting gives the object itself; poetry what it implies.
Painting embodies what a thing contains in itself: poetry suggests
what exists out of it, in any manner connected with it. But this
last is the proper province of the imagination. Again, as it relates
to passion, painting gives the event, poetry the progress of events :
but it is during the progress, in the interval of expectation and
suspense, while our hopes and fears are strained to the highest pitch
of breathless agony, that the pinch of the interest lies.

• Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The mortal instruments are then in council ;
And the state of man, like to a little kingdom,
Suffers then the nature of an insurrection.'

iy the time that the picture is painted, all is over. Faces are
the best part of a picture ; but even faces are not what we chiefly
remember in what interests us most. — But it may be asked then, Is


there anything better than Claude Lorraine's landscapes, than Titian's
portraits, than Raphael's cartoons, or the Greek statues r Of the
two first I shall say nothing, as they are evidently picturesque, rather
than imaginative. Raphael's cartoons are certainly the finest com-
ments that ever were made on the Scriptures. Would their effect be
the same, if we were not acquainted with the text ? But the New
Testament existed before the cartoons. There is one subject of
which there is no cartoon, Christ washing the feet of the disciples
the night before his death. But that chapter does not need a
commentary ! It is for want of some such resting place for the
imagination that the Greek statues are little else than specious
forms. They are marble to the touch and to the heart. They
have not an informing principle within them. In their faultless
excellence they appear sufficient to themselves. By their beauty
they are raised above the frailties of passion or suffering. By their
beauty they are deified. But they are not objects of religious faith
to us, and their forms are a reproach to common humanity. They
seem to have no sympathy with us, and not to want our admiration.

Poetry in its matter and form is natural imagery or feeling, combined
with passion and fancy. In its mode of conveyance, it combines the
ordinary use of language with musical expression. There is a
question of long standing, in what the essence of poetry consists ;
or what it is that determines why one set of ideas should be expressed
in prose, another in verse. Milton has told us his idea of poetry in
a single line —

' Thoughts that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers. 1

As there are certain sounds that excite certain movements, and
the song and dance go together, so there are, no doubt, certain
thoughts that lead to certain tones of voice, or modulations of sound
and change 'the words of Mercury into the songs of Apollo.' There
is a striking instance of this adaptation of the movement of sound and
rhythm to the subject, in Spenser's description of the Satyrs
accompanying Una to the cave of Sylvanus.

' So from the ground she fearless doth arise

And walketh forth without suspect of crime.
They, all as glad as birds of joyous prime,

Thence lead her forth, about her dancing round,
Shouting and singing all a shepherd's rhyme j

And with green branches strewing all the ground,
Do worship her as queen with olive garland crown'd.


And all the way their merry pipes they sound,
That all the woods and doubled echoes ring ;

And with their horned feet do wear the ground,
Leaping like wanton kids in pleasant spring;

So towards old Sylvanus they her bring,
Who with the noise awaked, cometh out.''

Faery Queen, b. i. c. vi.

On the contrary, there is nothing either musical or natural in the
ordinary construction of language. It is a thing altogether arbitrary
and conventional. Neither in the sounds themselves, which are the
voluntary signs of certain ideas, nor in their grammatical arrange-
ments in common speech, is there any principle of natural imitation,
or correspondence to the individual ideas, or to the tone of feeling
with which they are conveyed to others. The jerks, the breaks,
the inequalities, and harshnesses of prose, are fatal to the flow of a
poetical imagination, as a jolting road or a stumbling horse disturbs
the reverie of an absent man. But poetry makes these odds all
even. It is the music of language, answering to the music of the
mind, untying as it were ' the secret soul of harmony.' Wherever
any object takes such a hold of the mind as to make us dwell upon it,
and brood over it, melting the heart in tenderness, or kindling it to a
sentiment of enthusiasm ; — wherever a movement of imagination or
passion is impressed on the mind, by which it seeks to prolong and
repeat the emotion, to bring all other objects into accord with it,
and to give the same movement of harmony, sustained and continuous,
or gradually varied according to the occasion, to the sounds that
express it — this is poetry. The musical in sound is the sustained and
continuous ; the musical in thought is the sustained and continuous also.
There is a near connection between music and deep-rooted passion.
Mad people sing. As often as articulation passes naturally into
intonation, there poetry begins. Where one idea gives a tone and
colour to others, where one feeling melts others into it, there can be
no reason why the same principle should not be extended to the
sounds by which the voice utters these emotions of the soul, and
blends syllables and lines into each other. It is to supply the in-
herent defect of harmony in the customary mechanism of language, to
make the sound an echo to the sense, when the Sense becomes a sort of
echo to itself — to mingle the tide of verse, ' the golden cadences of
poetry,' with the tide of feeling, flowing and murmuring as it flows — in
short, to take the language of the imagination from off the ground, and
enable it to spread its wings where it may indulge its own impulses —

' Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air — '


without being stopped, or fretted, or diverted with the abruptnesses and
petty obstacles, and discordant flats and sharps of prose, that poetry
was invented. It is to common language, what springs are to a
carriage, or wings to feet. In ordinary speech we arrive at a certain
harmony by the modulations of the voice : in poetry the same thing
is done systematically by a regular collocation of syllables. It has
been well observed, that every one who declaims warmly, or grows
intent upon a subject, rises into a sort of blank verse or measured
prose. The merchant, as described in Chaucer, went on his way
' sounding always the increase of his winning.' Every prose-writer
has more or less of rhythmical adaptation, except poets, who, when
deprived of the regular mechanism of verse, seem to have no principle
of modulation left in their writings.

An excuse might be made for rhyme in the same manner. It is
but fair that the ear should linger on the sounds that delight it, or
avail itself of the same brilliant coincidence and unexpected recurrence
of syllables, that have been displayed in the invention and collocation
of images. It is allowed that rhyme assists the memory ; and a man
of wit and shrewdness has been heard to say, that the only four
good lines of poetry are the well-known ones which tell the number
of days in the months of the year.

* Thirty days hath September,' &c.

But if the jingle of names assists the memory, may it not also quicken
the fancy ? and there are other things worth having at our ringers'
ends, besides the contents of the almanac. — Pope's versification is
tiresome, from its excessive sweetness and uniformity. Shakspeare's
blank verse is the perfection of dramatic dialogue.

All is not poetry that passes for such : nor does verse make the
whole difference between poetry and prose. The Iliad does not
cease to be poetry in a literal translation ; and Addison's Campaign
has been very properly denominated a Gazette in rhyme. Common
prose differs from poetry, as treating for the most part either of such
trite, familiar, and irksome matters of fact, as convey no extra-
ordinary impulse to the imagination, or else of such difficult and
laborious processes of the understanding, as do not admit of the way-
ward or violent movements either of the imagination or the passions.

I will mention three works which come as near to poetry as
possible without absolutely being so, namely, the Pilgrim's Progress,
Robinson Crusoe, and the Tales of Boccaccio. Chaucer and
Dryden have translated some of the last into English rhyme, but the
essence and the power of poetry was there before. That which lifts
the spirit above the earth, which draws the soul out of itself with



indescribable longings, is poetry in kind, and generally fit to become
so in name, by being ' married to immortal verse.' If it is of the
essence of poetry to strike and fix the imagination, whether we will
or no, to make the eye of childhood glisten with the starting tear, to
be never thought of afterwards with indifference, John Bunyan and
Daniel Defoe may be permitted to pass for poets in their way. The
mixture of fancy and reality in the Pilgrim's Progress was never
equalled in any allegory. His pilgrims walk above the earth, and
yet are on it. What zeal, what beauty, what truth of fiction '
What deep feeling in the description of Christian's swimming
across the water at last, and in the picture of the Shining Ones
within the gates, with wings at their backs and garlands on their heads,
who are to wipe all tears from his eyes ! The writer's genius, though
not ' dipped in dews of Castalie,' was baptised with the Holy
Spirit and wit!: fire. The prints in this book are no small part of
it. If the confinement of Philoctetes in the island of Lemnos was a
subject for the most beautiful of all the Greek tragedies, what shall
we say to Robinson Crusoe in his? Take the speech of the Greek
hero on leaving his cave, beautiful as it is, and compare it with the
reflections of the English adventurer in his solitary place of confine-
ment. The thoughts of home, and of all from which he is for ever
cut off, swell and press against his bosom, as the heaving ocean rolls
its ceaseless tide against the rocky shore, and the very beatings of
his heart become audible in the eternal silence that surrounds him.
Thus he says,

' As I walked about, either in my hunting, or for viewing the country,
the anguish of my soul at my condition would break out upon me on a
sudden, and my very heart would die within me to think of the woods, the
mountains, the deserts I was in; and how I was a prisoner, locked up with
the eternal bars and bolts of the ocean, in an uninhabited wilderness, with-
out redemption. In the midst of the greatest composures of my mind,
this would break out upon me like a storm, and make me wring my hands,
and weep like a child. Sometimes it would take me in the middle of my
work, and I would immediately sit down and sigh, and look upon the
ground for an hour or two together, and this was still worse to me, for if
I could burst into tears or vent myself in words, it would go o.Y, and the
grief having exhausted itself would abate." P. 50.

The story of his adventures would not make a poem like the
Odyssey, it is true; but the relator had the true genius of a poet.
It has been made a question whether Richardson's romances are
poetry ; and the answer perhaps is, that they are not poetry, because
they are not romance. The interest is worked up to an incon-
ceivable height; but it is by an infinite number of little things, by



hcessant labour and calls upon the attention, by a repetition of blows
tlat have no rebound in them. The sympathy excited is not a
voluntary contribution, but a tax. Nothing is unforced and
spntaneous. There is a want of elasticity and motion. The story
dees not ' give an echo to the seat where love is throned.' The
heirt does not answer of itself like a chord in music. The fancy does
no: run on before the writer with breathless expectation, but in
dragged along with an infinite number of pins and wheels, like those
witi which the Lilliputians dragged Gulliver pinioned to the
royil palace. — Sir Charles Grandison is a coxcomb. What sort of
a figure would he cut, translated into an epic poem, by the side of
Achilles ? Clarissa, the divine Clarissa, is too interesting by half.
She is interesting in her ruffles, in her gloves, her samplers, her aunts
and uncles — she is interesting in all that is uninteresting. Such
things, however intensely they may be brought home to us, are not
conductors to the imagination. There is infinite truth and feeling in
Richardson ; but it is extracted from a caput moriuum of circum-
stances : it does not evaporate of itself. His poetical genius is like
Ariel confined in a pine-tree, and requires an artificial process to let
it out. Shakspeare says —

' Our poesy is as a gum
Which issues whence 'tis nourished, our gentle flame
Provokes itself, and like the current flies
Each bound it chafes.' 1

I shall conclude this general account with some remarks on four of
the principal works of poetry in the world, at diiferent periods of
history — Homer, the Bible, Dante, and let me add, Ossian. In
Homer, the principle of action or life is predominant ; in the Bible,
the principle of faith and the idea of Providence ; Dante is a
personification of blind will ; and in Ossian we see the decay of life,
and the lag end of the world. Homer's poetry is the heroic : it is
full of life and action : it is bright as the day, strong as a river In
the vigour of his intellect, he grapples with all the objects of nature,

1 Burke's writings are not poetry, notwithstanding the vividness of the fancy,
because the subject matter is abstruse and dry, not natural, but artificial. The
difference between poetry and eloquence is, that the one is the eloquence of the
imagination, and the other of the understanding. Eloquence tries to persuade
the will, and convince the reason : poetrv produces its effect by instantaneous
sympathy. Nothing is a subject for poetry that admits of a dispute. Poets are in
general bad prose-writers, because their images, though fine in themselves, ;:re not
to the purpose, and do not carry on the argument. The French poetry wants the
forms of the imagination. It is didactic more than dramatic. And some of our
own poetry which has been most admired, is only poetry in the rhyme, and in the
studied use of poetic diction.



and enters into all the relations of social life. He saw man/
countries, and the manners of many men ; and he has brought then
all together in his poem. He describes his heroes going to batte
with a prodigality of life, arising from an exuberance of animal spirit?:
we see them before us, their number, and their order of battle,
poured out upon the plain * all plumed like estriches, like eagles newly
bathed, wanton as goats, wild as young bulls, youthful as May, aid
gorgeous as the sun at midsummer,' covered with glittering armo-ir,
with dust and blood ; while the Gods quaff their nectar in golden
cups, or mingle in the fray ; and the old men assembled on the wills
of Troy rise up with reverence as Helen passes by them. The
multitude of things in Homer is wonderful ; their splendour, their
truth, their force, and variety. His poetry is, like his religion, the
poetry of number and form : he describes the bodies as well as the
souls of men.

The poetry of the Bible is that of imagination and of faith ; it is
abstract and disembodied : it is not the poetry of form, but of power ;
not of multitude, but of immensity. It does not divide into many,
but aggrandizes into one. Its ideas of nature are like its ideas of
God. It is not the poetry of social life, but of solitude : each man
Beems alone in the world, with the original forms of nature, the rocks,
the earth, and the sky. It is not the poetry of action or heroic
enterprise, but of faith in a supreme Providence, and resignation to
the power that governs the universe. As the idea of God was
removed farther from humanity, and a scattered polytheism, it became
more profound and intense, as it became more universal, for the
Infinite is present to every thing : ' If we fly into the uttermost parts
of the earth, it is there also ; if we turn to the east or the west, we
cannot escape from it.' Man is thus aggrandised in the image of
his Maker. The history of the patriarchs is of this kind ; they are
founders of a chosen race of people, the inheritors of the earth ; they
exist in the generations which are to come after them. Their poetry,
like their religious creed, is vast, unformed, obscure, and infinite ; a
vision is upon it — an invisible hand is suspended over it. The spirit
of the Christian religion consists in the glory hereafter to be revealed ;
but in the Hebrew dispensation, Providence took an immediate share
in the affairs of this life. Jacob's dream arose out of this intimate
communion between heaven and earth : it was this that let down, in
the sight of the youthful patriarch, a golden ladder from the sky to
the earth, with angels ascending and descending upon it, and shed a
light upon the lonely place, which can never pass away. The story
of Ruth, again, is as if all the depth of natural affection in the
human race was involved in her breast. There are descriptions in



the book of Job more prodigal of imagery, more intense in passion,
than any thing in Homer, as that of the state of his prosperity, and
of the vision that came upon him by night. The metaphors in the
Old Testament are more boldly figurative. Things were collected
more into masses, and gave a greater momentum to the imagination.

Dante was the father of modern poetry, and he may therefore claim
a place in this connection. His poem is the first great step from
Gothic darkness and barbarism ; and the struggle of thought in it to
burst the thraldom in which the human mind had been so long held,
is felt in every page. He stood bewildered, not appalled, on that dark
shore which separates the ancient and the modern world ; and saw
the glories of antiquity dawning through the abyss of time, while
revelation opened its passage to the other world. He was lost in
wonder at what had been done before him, and he dared to emulate
it. Dante seems to have been indebted to the Bible for the gloomy
tone of his mind, as well as for the prophetic fury which exalts and
kindles his poetry ; but he is utterly unlike Homer. His genius is
not a sparkling flame, but the sullen heat of a furnace. He is power,
passion, sell-will personified. In all that relates to the descriptive or
fanciful part of poetry, he bears no comparison to many who had gone
before, or who have come after him ; but there is a gloomy abstrac-
tion in his conceptions, which lies like a dead weight upon the mind ;
a benumbing stupor, a breathless awe, from the intensity of the
impression ; a terrible obscurity, like that which oppresses us in
dreams ; an identity of interest, which moulds every object to its own
purposes, and clothes all things with the passions and imaginations of
the human soul, — that make amends for all other deficiencies. The
immediate objects he presents to the mind are not much in themselves,
they want grandeur, beauty, and order ; but they become every thing
by the force of the character he impresses upon them. His mind
lends its own power to the objects which it contemplates, instead of
borrowing it from them. He takes advantage even of the nakedness
and dreary vacuity of his subject. His imagination peoples the
shades of death, and broods over the silent air. He is the severest
of all writers, the most hard and impenetrable, the most opposite to
the flowery and glittering ; who relies most on his own power, and
the sense of it in others, and who leaves most room to the imagination
of his readers. Dante's only endeavour is to interest ; and he
interests by exciting our sympathy with the emotion by which he is
himself possessed. He does not place before us the objects by which
that emotion has been created ; but he seizes on the attention, by
shewing us the effect they produce on his feelings ; and his poetry
accordingly gives the same thrilling and overwhelming sensation,



which is caught by gazing on the face of a person who has seen some
object of horror. The improbability of the events, the abruptness
and monotony in the Inferno, are excessive : but the interest never

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 2 of 38)